From the author of the award-winning The Divinity Student comes an audacious dark novel detailing a battle in a phantasmagorical hell. Full of amazing scenes and images, The Tyrant has become a cult classic of weird fiction. Recommended for fans of Clive Barker, Thomas Ligotti, Kafka, Leonora Carrington and other surreal masters.
"Michael Cisco's works immerse the reader in worlds that are not simply dreamlike in the quality of their imagination but somehow manage to capture and convey the power of the dream itself. The Tyrant is his masterpiece."–Thomas Ligotti
"With its blend of real and fantastic and with a great character in Ella, Tyrant is a masterpiece of fantasy and also a very good place to start exploring the author's work as it is probably his "most accessible" book in a sense."–Fantasy Book Critic
Our Ariadne has brushed by you—in every city. You need only turn aside to see her at your elbow, a plain, dark-haired girl. She sits by the door in a complicated big bundle; the other passengers give her a wider berth and some drop compassionate looks, faint and brief, scarcely aware of the partially unassembled expressions on their own faces and she, with her eyes stubbornly welded to the floor, not at all. She counts the stops.
Without warning, and before the train starts braking, our Ariadne, here called Ella, strongly rises from her seat leaning forward on the stainless crutches that fledge the ends of her two arms, and locks the hinges of her leg braces. When shrieks come from the brakes and you are all precipitated toward the front of the car, she is already braced and leaning into it, and when the doors fly open she sways onto the platform with her eyes still obstinate because this station like all stations on this line has no elevator. The vaccine readily available the disease assumed destroyed, for want of a shot she had lost the use of both of her legs when she was five, from polio. Already a precocious child, the disease passed from her and left her mind hard clear as a diamond terrifying effortless penetrating intelligence, impatient with no wasting time. Utterly defeated and mastered by their remote daughter, her parents could only wave impotent hands when she began taking undergraduate courses as a twelve year old.
Every day, she would stand at the base of the callous stairs in this station, wait a moment for a crazy impulse to spin the wheels in her shoulders bringing the ends of her two crutches up and forward onto the first step. With her crutches' feet spaced widely apart, she would lever herself off the ground and swing both her legs forward between them, settle them down and then repeat until she stood on the upper platform, all the time the crowd dashing on all sides.
Once, Ella was standing near the top of the stairs when a man in a white trenchcoat dashing for the train raced past her along the handrail buffeting her shoulders as he went, and with a sickening heave she felt her balance swing wildly upright she reached for the rail to her surprise it was already above her someone with dark glasses was coming down the stairs with rapidly tumbling steps above her without noticing her. There was a blow across her shoulders that rammed her chin into her chest—that was the landing, striking her, she had fallen—a crutch tangled with the rail post pried her shoulder from its socket and only then came loose away—her momentum carried her heavy rigid legs unable to bend over her head and she dropped for a moment in a cartwheel onto her heels. With nothing to hand she continued backwards and her heels left the step—she plummeted to the platform and her legs clattered on the lowermost steps in a striped metal V, warm damp spread over the softened back of her head, the man with the dark glasses flashed by and into the closing doors of the car to her left, where her head was turned, her eyes stuck half closed. Persons darkly streaked over. Without understanding but fixed moment by moment in her memory she could see a red trickle escaping across the concrete, gathering into a little bulging pool before pushing further, bearing a cigarette butt. She watched that stream flow into the standing yellow pool at the base of the staircase—she remembers an oblivious kick from the hard point of a woman's shoe against the soft inside of her forearm stripped of its crutch. Conscious through some of the miscellaneous activity that followed, before her eyes would finally go dim.
They didn't stay dim but sprang back bright steady and fixed gleaming from her hospital corner, against this attempt on her life. That showed she had devoured the delirium of her long recovery. Ella returned to her study of biology and passed on to the graduate faculty, exhibiting a fresh and uncanny facility with all varieties of ectoplasm, precipitating it from dissected bodies and the comatose, and even from fruit grown in cemetery soil. She would cut say an orange in half and paint the exposed flesh with her solution, press the slice against a thick glass slide and turn on the electric current, and in a moment a round flickering pool of brilliant white fluid made all of minute rolling coils would spread from beneath the halved fruit, looking like a beaded mat of tiny pearls. Now fifteen years old, she has recently published an article on ectoplasmic behavior in the The Lancet. She rides the trains with her gaze on the floor, and whenever a young man sits somewhere near, her lids are squeezed together and the concentrated light of her gaze retreats into the small crescent apertures behind the lashes as two glaring inturned beams; in her daydreams she batters a mob out of her path with her crutches. When Ella climbs the stairs she looks avidly for an oncoming commuter, ready to lash out with fast tip of a crutch. Climbing the stairs truly minatory with the forbidding brawn of her shoulders and arms, deposited over years on crutches, and the crackling blue darts of her gaze spitting under dark, heavy tresses.
From the platform to the upper level and from the upper level to the street, Ella shoulders her way to the sidewalk and plows into a gnawing crowd and landscape of hard surfaces, all the city's erratic, jerky motion confined to one horizontal layer close to the ground, while the air between the buildings overhead stands stagnant and oppressive as a glass slide. Ella takes every step entire, such that her body moves forward all at once on her crutches, vehemently regular and in straight lines, throwing the point of focus of her eyes far before her and above the heads of the crowd. Though the Biology Building is dwarfed and crowded, its stones clawed and mouthed at by the surrounding commercial buildings, it has not lost its expansive, mausoleum quality. Ella fixes her gaze on its doorway elevated above the level of the street by a flight of broad shallow steps almost a pleasure to climb, and pedestrians swerve and zig-zag out of her path like gnats. The ponderous romanesque arch of the Biology Building engulfs Ella in its gloom—she levers into its shadow with one swing.
The thick doors are bronze with glass panels, silent hinges, the hall is lofty and cool, padded with carpets, dark and funereal. Ella passes the drooping head of the dozing desk attendant, enters the elevator: it's the size of a closet. Leaning against the back paneling she pulls the grille shut with the end of her crutch and its rattle startles the attendant. Once enclosed in it she can smell the elevator's musty carpet and a mechanical odor of lubricating oil all its acridity worn away, a smell like pencil leads. She bobs once and pulls back the grille. The halls are empty and only dimly lit, most of the light comes from a few high windows at the terms of the broad corridors—their glass is frosted and the light they shed is wan and gleams on the waxed floors. Ella knows the building's varnished intestines ramble monotonously in every direction without much sense to their turns; she's familiar with the department. In the foyer, where the elevator stands pressed against an exposed staircase of coffee-colored wood dripping with little bulbs, spikes, other ungainly ornaments, and where all the diverse routes through the building intersect, she passes a high case of cabinets set in the wall. This is a display of animal specimens, mostly aquatic animals, most gathered long ago, burned white by formaldehyde and alcohol, crepey and little withered. Cunningly hidden lights in the paneling shine through the jars and glass slabs from behind, but their light does not penetrate the slightly dusty glass of the casement doors, topped with gothic points. Standing on graduated steps covered in crimson velvet these pale corpses of cuttlefish, held open with pins, and nudebranchs and eels, an immature leopard shark with blue eyes like crushed shells, have the look of holy relics, all with Latin tags.
In the halls, one or two persons slip past Ella with furtively whispered greetings; they are impossible to recognize in the gloom. The office is large with a number of partitioned compartments, its door standing open. Somewhere toward the back Ella can hear a muffled conversation, and by the milky glow of the distant, large frosted windows, she can make out the silhouette of a woman typing. The rosy wooden pigeonholes for student mail are all empty, including Ella's, though she peers in to make certain. Someone appears next to her.
"Ella, the Dean asked to see you."
The Dean's office is nearby, its ceilings are high and its several large rooms are paneled with darkly glowing tea-colored oak, carpeted with voluptuously red and brown rugs. The Dean's inner sanctum is lined with bookshelves, and one wall where he has his poison cabinet, like the old daguerreotypists, and a tall closet of regular square small wooden apertures, with a labeled, stoppered glass bottle standing in each. The whole affair gives the impression of eternal arrangement. The Dean is sitting behind his palatial desk, bent over a dissection. A heady chemical sourness emanates from the bare desktop, where bits of the preserved, pallid body, some twitching, are haphazardly scattered in puddles of formaldehyde and alcohol. The Dean is known for this slovenliness with specimens; he seems to precipitate gobs of anonymous tissue wherever he goes. It's not uncommon to find, having shaken hands with him, that one comes away with some alienated bit of anatomy throbbing feebly in one's palm. Now, for a moment, he does not notice Ella, and there is no sound but the tapping of his instruments, not unlike the tapping of silverware on a dinner plate. In his reverie, his head down over his work showing only the black dot of his skullcap and the two bristles of his bushy eyebrows at the front, he sways contentedly over his work sending some particle of tissue sliding across the smooth desktop, to come to rest at the base of a bronze and stained-glass lamp. Tilting his head up slightly, he exposes to the multicolored light the leathery creases of his face, half-hidden by his beard. He wears a jeweler's eyepiece screwed into his right eye. From time to time, in inspecting the specimen's tentacles, a livid plume of pipe smoke oozes from between his lips—he keeps the short pipe's stem clenched in his teeth—bathing the exposed flesh of the sample in smoke as if he expected it to change color like a litmus response. The smoke came more and more often, in concentrated plumes more redolent of orange blossom and raisins than tobacco, clearing gaps in the specimen odor. Ella stands watching him certain that he is about to glance up by chance and notice her, speak in almost complete silence in a weak voice, telling her that he had not sent for her.
With a puff, Ella's vital momentum leaves her and she becomes inert, her gaze a statue's gaze, indifferent, her mind a blank. Minutes go by; the Dean's scalpel taps the glass, the little wheeze of breath sucked through the bowl of the pipe alternates with reedy whistle of air in the thickets of his nostrils. Ella's patience unexpectedly drifts up in her like falling snow. The Dean's head droops, and she can see a piston attached to a spinning flywheel down in the dark shaft beneath his skullcap, plunging and bobbing up again at regular intervals, etched with an upright gleam on its brass-colored metal, letting off gelatinous exhaust through his lips. After a moment more, the Dean tilts his head back, allowing his gaze to slide along the surface of the desk and drop from its edge. Ella knows he does not see her; his eyes rise only so far. The Dean's eyes are dark—from where she stands, Ella can't see the whites, but only the glistening metal of them and the banked-down gleams of his gaze that flicker on the thick edges of his eyelids. His hands rest loosely on their edges on either side of the desk, with the scalpel resting diagonally across his right palm. The light from the lamp gives his thick black garments, which though they are not fully cut still fall in luxurious folds, a powdery sheen. At any moment, Ella expects the Dean to address her, but though he seems ready to address her, he also clearly has not noticed her. Confused, on her guard, Ella stands motionless and watches him for any signs, but it doesn't occur to her to speak—the Dean seems as unlikely to hear as to see.
The Dean begins tapping his scalpel thoughtfully against the top of the desk. Ella begins searching the room with her eyes—for what?—for some clue, now she is certain that the Dean won't notice her or speak to her. To her left, against the wall, there is a large cabinet with many low shelves, piled high with papers—as the Dean taps, a letter near the top of one stack of papers catches Ella's eye: it hangs out of the stack suspended by its corner, and it waves. The Dean's oblivious tapping might cause it to fall. Ella moves toward it and sees at once that it is slipping loose, and immediately beneath it there is a badly burnt-down candle, its base splayed in an amorphous mass on the wooden shelf and a long spitting tongue of fire streaming from its wick; its light hidden behind two or three other heaps of paper. Ella swivels her body toward the flame and as the letter drops she plucks it out of the air at waist level between her two fingers. The candle flame hisses. The Dean is dissecting. The letter in Ella's hand is addressed to her, in her own handwriting.
Ella blows out the candle and crosses the room to sit on a high, hard bench by the drafty, unlit fireplace. Settled there, and able to free her hands from her crutches, she reads Dr Belhoria's letter, accepting her application alone from among hundreds, maybe many hundreds . . . Ella reads the words from beginning to end, and her eyes skip back over them—and pick out single words here and there, now not so much reading them as looking at them, suddenly become foreign words . . . presently, only shapes. Ella reads, that part of the room breaks free of the rest and the gap spreads apart with a billow in the middle to drive the parts back. She takes on a nude look because her ambition is exposed by her satisfaction in the letter, and her concentration on the satisfying letter is stripping her, gives her an autumnal feeling of wind blowing from branches down the back of her neck as if she was illuminated by stark light although the room is only getting darker. Moments like these have clear outlines and the hallmarks of a memory in advance of its recollection, for her the instant has a double border: the white edge of the page and the walls of the Dean's inner office.
The vertical eyes of the candles at the mantle's corners grow longer and fatten though the room grows darker. The Dean is barely visible at his desk despite the obvious shining of his desk lamp reflecting its light from his hands, face, and slow-moving instruments. Soon she can barely make him out. As the room's last light ebbs out, Ella knows somewhere Dr Belhoria's lab gathers substance and takes on a light of its own, intended for her. She's been groping toward it in long sweeps of her feelers since she sent in the application and through this letter Ella touches something solid on the other end, a solid opening.
She finds her way into the hall—completely dark, a power outage. To her left she spies a very faint bleak mist of diffuse light from one of the windows, hidden around a corner. Looking briefly to the right she sees a candle pass cupped in a glowing orange hand. She moves to the left feeling with her crutch to follow the wall and its unexpected regular plunges into open doors. Passing the landing of a grand staircase she glances down at an erratically moving light; an orderly in a plaid shirt is standing backward below her lighting the way for two others with his candelabra, these others are carrying a gurney with a sheeted cadaver up the stairs, their woolen hats bobbing back and forth as they miss their footing, trying to keep the gurney level. Ella doesn't dare try the stairs for fear of tripping in the dark, and the elevators must have stopped without power. The dark empty halls go on . . . she traces them at random and from time to time looks up at an errant candle far ahead, without finding her way to one of the windows. A metal rap tells her she has found the elevator and she lightly swings the tip of her crutch against the door, is shocked when it connects with nothing—the door is open, the shaft is blackly yawning—she can feel its musty esophagus breathe on her. Leaning against the jam she peers timidly down the shaft, wondering if there were any casualties.
The shaft and halls beam as power is restored. Ella jerks her head back as if she expected to be brained by the elevator, which actually does sweep down immediately, well-lit and empty. The hundred glass doors that segment the hallway before her shudder and then with sighs swing open in slightly staggered sequence away from her, revealing a door, marked an exterior exit, at the end of the hall—an effect out of a musical, and in fact she notices soft music, although not of the kind used in musicals. Ella leaves through the pearl-windowed doors.